For five years (and 11 rounds of review) a major feature of our program has been the announcement of “The” Unfunded List on our website. The first list was announced on Giving Tuesday in 2015. Since then, whenever we conclude a round of reviewing we select a few of those proposals to spotlight. The published list garners considerable interest and is one of the highest traffic days of the year for our website. Our original hope was that the list publication process would “harness the power of the honorable mention” and that some of the proposals we showcased would receive funding. While we are certain that we have found funding for the groups we have reviewed, we now know that happens as the result of network connectivity, hard work, and diligent follow up from our team and the applicants who send us proposals.
Popular culture and the media often give false impressions about how fundraising for social change actual works. Most people are familiar with viral crowdfunding campaigns that have raised millions seemingly overnight. Many have watched Shark Tank, or some version of it. We also regularly see stories reported with very little criticism about huge gifts from billionaire philanthropists. One of the least realistic moments in the entire series of Marvel Superhero films is when Tony Stark (aka Ironman for the unfamiliar) is on stage at MIT and declares that he has fully funded every project for every student. Because there is very little real education about philanthropy, many people come away with the impression that fundraising for an innovative social change idea is a straightforward or even simple endeavor.
We think it is quite unlikely that a significant funder would be idly googling one day and happen upon the Unfunded List website and decide to fully fund one of the worthy programs on our published lists. To be clear, we are not trying to discourage this practice. On the contrary, we think any wealthy funder would be very pleased with the results that would come from fully funding the proposals we have promoted over the years. However, after publishing several lists we have come to believe that our impact comes from providing feedback to everyone who sends us a proposal and encouraging follow-up conversations and additional review.
Grant Writing is a skill
If we have learned anything since founding Unfunded List it is that grant writing is a skill. It should be more than enough that these folks know how to solve an intractable social problem, but we ask them to be competitive grant writers and zealous networkers as well. It is unfair and unstrategic. After the first years of sending feedback reports to applicants, we started offering follow-up calls to everyone. The calls are an opportunity to discuss the report they had received, ask any questions, and brainstorm with us about future proposals they could submit.
These conversations are also an opportunity to connect the applicant with the evaluators who reviewed their proposals. All of our evaluators provide feedback to the proposals they review and occasionally they offer follow-up actions. In the past, evaluators have nominated projects for awards, invited proposals for consideration by family foundations, or requested follow-up conversations to learn more or brainstorm.
Some of our regular applicants have leveraged our program and feedback reports to craft new language for their proposals that enables them to seek new types of funders in order to expand their programs. Many of our professional consultants have suggested new revenue streams or pivots that have then been successfully implemented and yielded funding. There are countless ways to fund a social change program and there are countless ways our feedback reports combined with the follow-up report discussion can help make that happen. These follow-up actions become considerably more likely for programs that submit to us on a regular basis, yet another practice that we strongly encourage.
In the Fall of 2020, we reviewed 173 proposals from all over the world.
It was our largest review to date and involved 155 evaluators providing a total of 705 reviews so we could produce thousands of pages of feedback reports for the applicants. On November 1, we sent out the reports and then we did our best to schedule follow-up calls with each applicant.
Rather than simply spotlighting a few proposals from this round, we want to highlight some of the follow-up actions that resulted from these calls and demonstrate the wide variety of ways that nonprofits and other programs benefit from our work and approach. We hope you enjoy reading about how we engage with nonprofits and if you find these stories inspiring, interesting, or impactful please consider joining our evaluation committee or submitting your own proposal for review.
Of this year’s three honorees, one group sent us their proposal before they were rejected (and then won the grant), another has submitted every round since Spring of 2018, and the third submitted in 2017 but not this year. In recounting our experience reviewing these proposals, we want to underscore some specific follow-up actions and outcomes in the hope that future applicants and potential co-review partners can have a better sense of the depth of our review process and the impact that comes from our post-report follow up.
Oh, and if you happen to be a wealthy philanthropist who is idly googling for programs to support, these are the ones you should look into:
The proposal submitted to us is labeled “Project Truth, Reconciliation, and Reparations, (Working Title).” We prefer to call them “Truth & Rec” and hope the group eventually settles on that as their name (our sources report there is some support for this). Regardless of what the members of the still-strategizing fledgling organization call themselves, we learned about them because they applied for a grant from New Media Ventures and sent that submission to us for review. Since they had invested time in writing the proposal but were not sure how it would fare, they submitted it to the Unfunded List at the same time they applied for funding. While most folks submit to us after they are rejected or they opt-in through one of our co-review partners, we see value in reviewing a proposal at any stage of development. Eventually, this proposal was successful with New Media Ventures and the group will receive their first significant funding, a grant over $100k. We believe that the feedback we provided to them and the follow-up conversations and connections we were able to make will benefit them as well. We look forward to reading another submission from them this Spring, when their name will finally be settled.
When we received it, we assigned their proposal to a variety of evaluators with similar fundraising and activism experience so that we could provide a thorough and complete report, full of tips and suggestions for going forward. The report also included a couple specific follow-up items that we were excited to help move forward.
One of our evaluators, David Searby, is a retired State Department alumnus and member of The Lincoln Project. A lifelong Republican, he is very interested in bringing the country together using humor as a medium. This has been his focus for years. In 2016, I partnered with David on a separate project called Komodia that was about building comity through comedy. You will hear my voice narrating this video we made about gerrymandering. I thought David would make for a good reviewer on the Truth & Rec proposal and I was right. David is now excited about the effort and he is in active conversations with Truth & Rec about campaigns, potential funding, and collaborations with his new effort called Trouble4Good. Thanks to David, the two groups have already met with a US Congressman to discuss their ideas.
As luck would have it, one of our evaluators from the Skoll Foundation was already familiar with Truth & Rec, having seen the New Media Ventures announcement. She was eager to talk to them about Skoll’s own approach to racial justice and other progressive issues. During the post-report period, we were able to connect the staff from Truth & Rec with the appropriate staffers in the “Skollarverse.” And while Skoll doesn’t fund early stage ventures, the conversation is starting and the work continues. Over the years, we have connected a number of groups to Skoll, primarily through our super-evaluator Gurpreet Singh, who works at Skoll as a monitoring and evaluation expert.
Many of the proposal readers on our evaluation committee are passionate about social justice and we love giving them the opportunity to support fledgling efforts like Truth & Rec whose mission to right past wrongs is noble but will take considerable effort. New groups with new approaches looking for some help with their grant writing efforts are perfect for our program so we are pleased to announce that Ian Madrigal from Truth & Rec will join the Unfunded List Board of Directors this January for a full two-year term. We find tremendous value in having the unfunded themselves lend their perspective to our governance and look forward to working more closely with Ian as an evaluator, a proposal writer, and a member of our Board of Directors.
Over the summer, we highlighted just one proposal from our Spring round of review. That proposal came from Mary’s Center. Sarah McIntosh at Mary’s Center is a regular reviewer with Unfunded List and has reviewed with us every round since 2015 (a few years before that, Sarah was my intern at another nonprofit and we worked on foundation relations together). In the beginning, Unfunded List would only read proposals under a certain budget amount and Mary’s Center is a very large local NGO in Washington DC, with a budget over $70 million and over 500 employees at their various centers. At our evaluator summit in 2018, Sarah suggested that we should review larger organizations like hers. Because our committee has grown in size, we were eager to review more proposals so we agreed and reviewed a proposal from them the next round. Since Sarah’s suggestion, we have been reading proposals from organizations at all stages of development, including established organizations with substantial budgets.
This summer, we were in the early throes of the pandemic that still afflicts us. It was important to highlight the important work Mary’s Center has been doing providing COVID tests and healthcare to the district’s neediest residents. This work remains important because they are a literal lifeline for many residents of DC during the pandemic. With over 500 staff members, Mary’s Center was ineligible for payroll relief from the CARES Act but they have been able to find new funding opportunities. We wanted to spotlight Mary’s Center over the summer and we choose to highlight them again this winter because of the important role of local health centers during a health crisis. We also want to showcase the professionals who work on the Mary’s Center grants team. Read our profile on them from the summer to see what a day in the life is like for a fundraiser at an important community health center.
Several of our DC evaluators wanted to have follow-up conversations with Mary’s Center to help them strategize. Normally, we prioritize connections that lead directly to funding, but since there was such strong interest in Mary’s Center we connected Sarah with several evaluators who had no specific agenda other than to provide independent third-party brainstorming support.
Here is what Sarah had to say about talking with Unfunded List evaluators:
Thanks Sarah! We agree. We would be happy to make more of these connections even when there is no immediate funding opportunity on the table. While we guarantee a feedback report to every applicant, we are increasingly making efforts to offer real follow-up conversations as well. We do our best to facilitate as many conversations as possible, but it is a herculean administrative effort. We have hundreds of applicants, hundreds of reviews, and hundreds of follow-up offers to sort through each round. Many potential connections will die on the vine, others will bear fruit.
We have enjoyed reviewing proposals from Mary’s Center every round since we raised our budget cap in 2018. We have also enjoyed including Sarah’s thoughts in our reports going back to the very first one we sent, so we are excited to announce that in 2021 Sarah will be joining our Governance & Advancement Committee. We look forward to benefiting more directly and regularly from her helpful suggestions about our program.
Although SimPrints did not submit a proposal to us this year, we reviewed them several years ago and the experience illustrates that it takes time for an organization to build a program. Rarely does our advice lead to instantaneous funding success but SimPrints was well positioned to take action on our suggestions. Since their submission to us, SimPrints has won several prizes and grants. We were particularly excited to learn recently that they were one of 10 winners of the Elevate Prize. Unfunded List offers co-review to Elevate Prize applicants and I personally read all of the semi-finalist submissions. SimPrints was one of only a few programs in the Elevate Prize pool that we had reviewed previously and clearly they were one of the favorites of the judges. Congratulations to their team on yet another prize. Here is what they had to say about us in 2016:
In 2017, they submitted to us looking for feedback on their proposal to DFID, a government funder in the UK focused on international development and comparable to USAID. While the goals of DFID and USAID overlap with those of the Elevate Prize, their funding competitions are conducted quite differently, particularly in their marketing strategies and eligibility rules. In 2017, SimPrints was developing a fingerprint scanner for infants to be used to solve identification problems in refugee camps. We provided feedback on their submission and they received a full report from us. It was during the follow-up call that we suggested they consider applying for some of the more widely marketed prizes for international development solutions. At the time, our partner WeWork was ramping up the Creator Awards and actively looking for innovative submissions from the London area where SimPrints is based. During our discussions with applicants, we often brainstorm about which types of funding organizations could potentially pursue. Shortly after we suggested they apply for it, we were delighted to learn that SimPrints had won the $360,000 first prize at the Creator Awards in London. It is extremely rewarding for us to see that their success with prizes continues with the recently awarded Elevate Prize of $300,000.
SimPrints has also received funding from DFID, USAID, the Gates Foundation, and other major funders in the international development space and they partner with some of the largest and most impactful global NGOs. Learn more about their work.
If your program is stuck with one type of funding or just considering branching out, consider sending a proposal to us and we will do our best to consider all the ways you could fund your program. You can also join our Evaluation Committee to give feedback and advice to other proposals and hone your skills and knowledge of the philanthropy world in our Library of Philanthropy Education.